One coder's experience writing a novel

Back in college, which for me was over twenty years ago, I would rather have done an entire semester’s worth of computer science problem sets than write a single essay. I started programming on the Atari 400 (with its zero-key-travel, click-comes-through-the-tv-speaker membrane keyboard) when I was in third grade. Ever since I’ve had the ability, or the curse, to get so into coding that hours pass like minutes.

Atari 400
The Atari 400 computer. We had the BASIC and LOGO cartridges and a tape recorder for storing programs.

I’m the same way with reading and have been ever since my first Hardy Boys book in elementary school. When I start a book, unless it’s bad, I don’t stop. And if it’s good, I usually finish in a day.

Writing, though, I hated. Especially during college. I procrastinated every writing assignment. People said studying computer science was a grind compared to the humanities. I couldn't understand that. How could coding be more painful than writing essays or reflections? My far and away least favorite class over four years at Harvard was Expos. Is it still required? Yes!

Degree candidates admitted as first-year students must enroll during their first year of residence in a prescribed course in expository writing offered by the Harvard College Writing Program. A final grade of D– or better in Expository Writing 20 ordinarily fulfills the writing requirement...

From Harvard College Student Handbook 2021-2022

So, imagine my surprise when, at the start of the pandemic, having never written anything longer than twenty pages (excluding figures), I discovered that writing fiction is as fun as developing software. I started, kept going, and ended up writing a 380 page novel.

This blog post is mostly about my journey and a little about my book.

I’m an early riser. (I you doubt I can code.) For years my routine was wake up, get on my bike, and daydream on the ride to the office. Work from home messed with that. At first I kept up my morning cycling, but without a destination I fell out of the habit. How I replaced cycling with writing was an accident.

A few weeks into work from home I asked my kids how they would explain the pandemic to their great-grandchildren. I assumed this conversation would take place in a hundred years, and living to 113 would by then be normal. Would people look back and see 2020 as the end of the primacy of physical location?

Take snow days as an example. Before Covid, if you couldn’t go to the physical place called school, school was canceled. A few weeks into the pandemic that concept was already strange. With so much virtual teaching, the fact that there happened to be a building called school was secondary. “What’s a snow day?” my great-great-grandchildren will ask. My centenarian children will have to explain how in the old days, all sorts of activities, including school, required physical proximity.

So the next morning, instead of cycling, I started writing down an imaginary conversation between my son and his great-grandchildren. Once I wrote a few sentences it poured out of me. My 113-year-old son shows up for lunch with his granddaughter and great-grandchildren. My son’s hyperconnected great-grandchildren ignore their slow, “pre-implant” great-grandfather. Their mother, my son’s granddaughter, gets fed up with the kids being rude and disconnects their implants.

After the shock of being disconnected wears off, my son’s great-grandchildren start listening to him and become fascinated by stories of the pandemic of 2020. In the world of 2120, where food and clothing are printed on demand, sensory input is enhanced through neural implants, and onboard health diagnostics block contagious disease, my great-great-grandchildren are surprised at how primitive and dangerous life was a mere hundred years earlier.

I kept writing. After a week, I had 10,000 words of choppy dialogue between the great-grandfather and his family. I thought about posting it somewhere. But first I shared it with three close friends, all of whom told me it was a total mess.

So my interest in revising and posting it went way down, helped along by the need to binge watch Fauda after Netflix nailed it with this email to me: “Eric, Fauda Season 3 is now on Netflix.” (Great show, especially season one. Watch with subtitles, not dubbed.)

But then a funny thing happened. My mornings felt empty without writing. I decided to push ahead, treating my initial scene as the first chapter of something longer. I wrote every weekday morning for an hour and for larger chunks of time on weekends. I also made one big push over a vacation week where for eight days in a row I wrote a minimum of 3,000 words a day.

By the end of July, I had a 75,000 word draft novel. I sent it to my neighbor and he sent back this (x’ing out a few spoilers):

Smooth sailing until chapter 4. I got through chapter 4 but I guess not that interested in the character XXX and XXX. So getting through chapter 5 was difficult and ended up abandoning ship. I also started skimming descriptions of how things are/work in the present day unless there was something new or refreshing to me about it. Maybe the book will appeal to a younger reader? I know you would want my honest opinion besides I’m just a guy who can’t finish half the books he starts anyway!

That was devastating. Appreciated, because getting honest feedback is helpful and much better than no feedback or sugarcoated feedback. (Feedback really is a gift, something I heard Tobi Lütke say on a podcast and something that Andrew Bialecki emphasizes all the time.) I had a long back and forth with my neighbor and tried to understand what exactly was turning him off. It wasn’t all that different from testing an MVP, just replace “user” with “reader.” As far as I could tell, my neighbor didn’t like my plot, characters, setting or writing, which made it impossible for him to suspend disbelief and get into my story.

Around the same time another friend started reading and one night, when I checked my phone before going to bed, I got this:

I just read the first 20 pages and I am HOOKED. Is this your first draft????????

And then a day later:

Oh. My. God. I just finished. Eric, this is an incredible book. I have been basically unable to put it down. I was so absorbed in it that I am not sure I read it with as critical an eye as you may have wanted me to! But I am more than happy to discuss it with you!

That was motivating. Very motivating. In the months that followed I received more feedback of both types, and also plenty of radio silence. Radio silence was the worst because I didn’t know if it meant they started and gave up and didn’t want to tell me (bad), or they didn’t even start (neutral).

Another positive sign was that one of my wife’s good friends started reading, and the whole time she kept texting my wife telling her to push me to hurry up and get my book out into the world. When people like something they want to tell friends (the whole idea behind the “how likely are you to tell a friend” net promoter score idea). That an early reader was so excited told me my story could resonate, and maybe even had a chance of spreading by word of mouth.

Early readers started talking to me about my characters. When you create software, you know you’re onto something when users start asking for features, when they tell you how they want things to work, when they understand your product. Same goes for fictional characters. I was psyched when a reader reacted to a proposed change by telling me there is no way the character in question would walk out on her husband. A fictional character who a few months before was just an idea in my mind!

Yes, creating something from nothing is inherently fun. But it’s even more fun—and satisfies a deep human need—when other people care about what you create. (Now is it good or bad that social media hooks us on getting instant reactions to every little bit of creation? I explore that in my novel.)

At times, imagining and writing about my characters was as addictive as reading a novel, and in those cases the words poured out of me. In other cases, I struggled to get out a single paragraph. I started using that as my test. If I was bored with what I was writing, I figured the reader would be too. If I was into what my characters were doing, I assumed I was on the right track.

Here’s an example where I’m being careful not to reveal any spoilers. I describe the evolution of a group called 1Billion over twenty years. The early years of that evolution are not that important to my plot, but they are important to the development of a main character. I was writing all this stuff summarizing the evolution. It was boring to write, it came out like a business report, and I was sure it was boring to read. So I eliminated the summary and switched to describing one of the key scenes along the way. My character is having dinner at an upscale restaurant in Seoul. Over a fried grasshopper appetizer, she and her associate come up with an important idea for 1Billion. It was fun to write and I figured it had a better chance of being interesting to read.

I proceeded in that fashion, removing stuff I thought was bad and adding new stuff I thought was good. I also added more detail about my main characters while removing or downplaying all the characters who I had in my original draft but turned out to be minor.

BTW...I’m sure the process I’m describing is obvious to an experienced novelist and only scratches the surface of what you learn when you study creative writing, but “discovering” these rules on my own was useful.

The story that emerged as I kept deleting and adding is this. There has been a civil war in the US and a brain drain to KISS (Korea, Israel, Singapore, Sweden). A new world order emerges rooted in responsible oversight of information and connectivity for everyone on the planet. But centralized authority and hyperconnectivity are fertile ground for catastrophe. That catastrophe strikes in chapter one during a massively pared down version of the great-grandfather lunch scene I mentioned above. Then the story jumps back to twenty years earlier and follows two threads. Those threads converge, and the whole thing cycles back to the events of chapter one.

I got the sense I was on the right track when I started receiving feedback like this:

I really enjoyed your novel! And I'm saying this as someone who generally is not a fan of science fiction. Here's my nonexpert review.

The first thing that struck me was that even though it's science fiction, I appreciated the fact that it didn't take place in space or on some faraway planet with space creatures. It was set 100 years in the future and although we have neural implants, people are still people. Once that was established, I felt I was able to relate to the characters and the storyline (not usually the case for me with sci-fi).

I loved the way the characters' stories all seemed separate and unrelated at the start, but then you were gradually able to see the collision course they were on. Also how it seemed you were picking up on themes that are simmering in the world today (like intolerance, overdependence on technology, maybe using VR as an escape? living in an echo chamber) and carrying them to a conclusion that doesn't seem crazy.

Somehow I managed to feel really sad at the end, even though you previewed what was going to happen in the beginning - I think it's because I liked the characters so much.

And this:

Eric, I really loved it! And I’m not just saying that because, admittedly, I am a bit biased. When I was reading it, I didn’t want to put it down and, during the times when I had to put it aside, I was anxious to get back to it and find out what would happen next. I often fell asleep reading it – not because the content wasn’t engaging but because even though I was so tired when I finally got into bed for the night, I couldn’t resist reading more of it and would do so instead of just going right to sleep.

I’m friends with Ken Liu who is famous both as an author and as the translator of The Three Body Problem. We chatted and he gave me tons of good advice. He explained the difference between traditional publishing, self/indie publishing and the “new model” (where the book isn’t the goal, but instead a calling card for speaking opportunities or consulting gigs). He also warned me to be careful about feedback from friends, not just because they might sugarcoat, but because they can’t help but read with the filter of what they already know about the author. Then I asked Ken…

“Would you read my draft?” And even as I asked I felt like someone who threw some paint up on a canvas and asked Monet for feedback.

“No, I won’t read it until it’s basically done.”

“Because you don’t have time to read the work of amateurs?”

“No, less that, I have my critique group of writers already.”

Well, can’t hurt to ask!

Another funny thing Ken shared was about adverbs. He told me to be careful of getting involved in certain writing workshops, “You know, they’ll fixate on things like not using adverbs, rather than on what the reader really cares about.” Before that conversation, I seriously had no idea there was anything bad about adverbs, but if you search you’ll find plenty on the topic.

And then Ken shared something that set my course. He told me about development editors and explained that they’re people who provide top level feedback on structure, plot, and characters.

“They offer a diagnosis, not a solution,” Ken told me. “It turns out that when people read your book and tell you how to fix it, they are never of any use. Only you can know how you want to tell your story. Someone can't tell you how to fix the problem. The most useful feedback is from skilled readers who can read a book and tell you here's what’s not working, and here's why it's not working. This is what I think is the problem. This scene isn't working because you didn't build up the character, or this scene doesn't hit home.”

Up to that point I hadn’t given any thought to editing. I assumed an editor was someone you worked with at the very end on micro-level stuff. (Which I now understand is what copyediting and proofreading is.)

Ken introduced me to editor Dario Ciriello. I read Dario’s The Fiction Writing Handbook and it spoke to me. I’m glad I didn’t read it before I wrote my first draft because I would have gotten paralyzed trying to stick to the advice. But since I was then revising, the very practical concepts in Dario’s handbook—ranging from you must make the reader care about your characters (duh...but obvious to me only in retrospect) to you only need to use the word “had” once in a passage to tell the reader you’ve shifted to the past perfect tense—gave me a whole new way to look at my text.

I then read Dario’s excellent Aegean Dream travel memoir about his year spent in Greece and decided I liked his writing. I contracted with him to perform a development edit. Two months later, in mid-October, he started.

“It will take you about six months to finish this,” Dario told me when we had a call to check in two weeks into his four week edit. In other words, I would need to spend roughly as much calendar time going forward as I had spent up to that point. One thing I had already learned from speaking with a writer friend is that finishing your first draft is the start of a long process. It’s normal to spend much, much more time revising than writing a first draft, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not all that different from creating an MVP, learning how users interact with it, and relentlessly polishing. (Yes, that adverb was on purpose.)

“As a new writer,” Dario told me, “you have to keep the reader closely informed and on your side.” As mentioned above, I started with a catastrophic event, then backtracked twenty years and built up two storylines that, in their initial chapters, seemed unrelated to each other. Dario’s point was that as an author with no reputation, my reader wouldn’t trust me to connect the threads back to the main plot. They might worry I was leading them on a wild goose chase. “As a writer you're close to your work, but the reader is thinking, I don't get it, what does this have to do with anything,” he told me.

Then there were my problems with interiority—a term I had never heard before I read Dario’s handbook, and thought he might have made up, but if you google, you’ll see it’s a standard creative writing concept. The idea is to show the inner thoughts of your characters—an essential component of a novel.

My characters were real to me, and in my head they had strong emotions, motivations and insecurities, but even before Dario’s feedback, I knew that wasn’t coming across on the page. One friend told me that my book read like a movie script, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. “I know who the characters are, what they’re saying, their physical environment, but I don’t feel it,” my friend told me. Dario helped me understand the reason. He pointed out the few places I did a great job with interiority, but also showed me that in many places I didn’t do it at all, making my characters flat and leaving the reader unfulfilled.

Here’s an example that drove home for me that my narration, dialogue and limited interiority weren’t doing the trick. I was chatting with a friend who asked me if Sunny, one of my main characters, was her father’s puppet. “No, of course she’s not her father’s puppet, she’s a skilled manipulator of people in her own right and is driven by an insatiable need for crowd adulation.”

“Wow,” he said, “I didn’t get that at all.”

(The conversation made me think of when you use tools like FullStory to watch people use your software and realize that a concept that’s clear to you misses the mark when confronted with real users. Which reminds me, I wonder how Amazon uses data from Kindle reading sessions. They obviously receive the reader location since you can switch among kindle devices and sync to the current page. I’m sure they store all the telemetry, giving them a timestamped list of reader locations in text. I would have loved to have that data for my beta readers [yes, that’s the real term]. Did my beta readers start the book? Where did they stop? What speed were they reading at in different sections? If I looked in aggregate, could I detect sections that people didn’t want to put down and other sections that failed to hold reader interest? Could I see a heatmap of where readers gave up? I wanted to watch my readers read just like you can watch people use software. On the other hand, I would never want anyone to watch me read.)

One piece of advice I heard over and over is to walk away from your draft for at least a month so you can then come back to it with fresh eyes. Considering I only had limited time to write each week, and was loving the process, I kept ignoring that advice. But then I decided to heed it, and timed my break to coincide with Dario doing the development edit. For a month I didn’t look at my writing and tried not to think about my characters.

Another bit of advice I read is that you must market your book. I thought writing a novel might be different than my experience with software entrepreneurship. I could just put my book out there and if it was good it would get readers. That was naive. In fact, I learned that even for books published by traditional publishers, where there is a company with a financial stake in the success of the book, nothing is guaranteed, and much of the burden of getting the word out still falls on the author.

So during my month of no writing I decided to learn about book marketing. I read Indie & Small Press Book Marketing by William Hertling, a software engineer who’s written a bunch of novels. His (dated) marketing book is filled with practical, firsthand advice, like sending an email to your extended family asking them to order so Amazon starts seeing purchases.

One of the words that comes up frequently in Hertling’s book is journey, as in, “It’s important to sell them not just on the book, but also on the excitement of the journey, on what you learned along the way, or topics covered in the book.”

At first I didn’t want to do that. As a kid I read every Asimov novel. I knew (and still know) nothing about his journey, but that didn’t stop me from loving his work. Books should stand on their own. But hey, it’s 2021, maybe it’s worth trying, so I started writing this blog post, and got into it.

I was out running—this was about a month after I stopped looking at my draft—and I blanked on the name Nadezhda Maksimova, one of my characters. I couldn’t remember her first name or her last name. That’s when I knew I was removed enough to get back into editing with a fresh perspective. And wow—did I find problems. At every level: from whole scenes that just didn’t belong to cringey dialogue all over the place.

One example. I had a scene (since erased) involving a future “gaming chair” that lets people stay in virtual reality for days on end without any concern for corporeal needs. Somewhat interesting, but it wasn’t central to the story, and was also gross.

Another example. This was an actual line of dialogue from my original draft: “But we haven’t gone more than two days without sex since that day on the beach. Now we’re supposed to just stop?” Can’t believe my early beta readers (including my parents!) saw that. Nobody talks that way. What was I thinking???

So I revised, and revised, and revised again from November through April, repeating the technique of taking weeks off from time to time to gain fresh perspective. My draft went from 75,000 to 98,000 words, and later down to 94,000 words, but that’s just net. In total I’m sure I wrote and deleted over 100,000 words, more than I wrote for my first draft.

Along the way my tools changed. I switched from Google Docs to Word because that’s what editors and proofreaders use. I used Vellum to generate formatted versions of my book. And I used BookFunnel to send my book to beta readers so they could sideload onto their preferred devices.

I read a piece of advice that said something like: first write your book, that’s an artistic project, but then you need to view your book as a product and your job is to package and market it. That’s where everything that isn’t the manuscript comes in—title, cover, blurb, categories, and keywords. (Google “book metadata” and you’ll see there’s a whole industry of consultants to help with this stuff.)

I couldn’t describe my book. That’s bad. People asked me, “What’s it about?” and I froze. That became a pressing problem once I started thinking about the blurb. There’s plenty of advice out there on how to write book blurbs, most of which boils down to covering key characters, goals, motivations, conflict, and stakes. That is not easy, especially when you’re trying to reduce ideas that occupy 95,000 words to a summary of a few paragraphs.

Did I want to appeal to the sci-fi themes of my book—a future where smartphones become neural implants and the Board of Reality Overseers has eliminated conspiracy theories? Did I want to talk about the devastating event that happens to my narrator in the first chapter? Or did I want to talk about my main character, the humble, brilliant, and insecure Sergei Kraev and his love interests? Or, and this scared me, was the fact it was so hard to figure out a blurb evidence of a fatal flaw in my story?

This was bothering me so much that I decided to do something a friend suggested—go to a public place and try describing the book to random people. On a warm Saturday in March, mask on, I stood outside the public library in my town. A trickle of people walked by me and I just couldn’t bring myself to stop them—those two people are talking, that person looks like she’s rushing, that guy doesn’t look friendly...excuse after excuse. Then the library closed and just a few people were still drifting out. My heart was racing. If I don’t do this, I thought, I’m going to need to go home and tell my kids I chickened out. Plus I’ve cold approached people when the stakes were higher, was I losing my nerve? Okay—I approached someone.

“Excuse me. I’m writing a novel. Can I describe it to you?”

“Is this going to take long?”

“No, that’s the point, and you can walk away if it does.”

He looked at me, like, okay, describe it. And then all sorts of incoherent stuff came out of my mouth. I realized that what seemed like a concise description in my head was way too long and way too confusing. “So, would you read that?”

“I don’t really read books.”

“What are you doing at the library?”

“Returning my kids’ books.”

I tried to stop another person but he said he was busy. Then I walked over to where two people were talking in the parking lot and asked if I could describe my book. It went about as bad as the first time. But just understanding the severity of the problem was helpful.

In the end, I decided to focus the blurb on my two main characters. Here's a recent version intended for Amazon and written as much by Dario as by me:

For fans of Neal Stephenson, Margaret Atwood, and Liu Cixin comes a novel that readers describe as “a great Black Mirror episode” with the “page-turning pacing of Michael Crichton.”

The year is 2100. The lack of trust that characterized the early Internet era is long behind us. Mathematical proof ensures neural implants can’t be hacked, and the Board of Reality Overseers blocks false information from spreading.

When undergraduate Sergei Kraev, who dreams of becoming a professor, is accepted into the Technion’s computer science graduate program, he throws himself into his research project: making it possible for neural implants to transmit information directly to the brain. If he succeeds, he’ll earn a full professorship.

But Sergei falls under the influence of Sunny Kim, the beautiful and charismatic leader of a K-pop dance cult. Sergei believes in Sunny’s good intentions and wants to protect her from critics, leading him to perform a feat of engineering that leaves billions of brains vulnerable to attack.

With the clock ticking towards catastrophe, can Sergei see the truth about Sunny and undo what he’s done?

Weaving together compelling characters and spanning decades and continents, The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev is a classic tale of love, ambition, and self-interest building to a shattering finish.

Around the same time I received feedback from two very different beta readers. One was from a friend of a friend who told me she usually reads suspense, mystery and horror. I was thrilled that she enjoyed my book:

Sci-fi isn’t the genre that I usually gravitate towards but I’m honestly glad I stepped a bit out of my comfort zone. It kept me hooked and I gobbled it down. The tension was real and palpable. The characters spoke with honest emotion and I cared about them. Sergei is everyman without society’s required hard, masculine shell. I loved him.

And another from a former colleague who is a serious reader and a serious thinker. This is from the end of a review he sent me:

Like all great Sci-Fi authors, Silberstein entices us with a good story, but holds up a mirror. In the end, I reached the conclusion I hope many other readers will enjoy reaching: I am Sergei, and I am why humanity can't have nice things.

Both of those gave me confidence that my story could resonate with a variety of people. Then there was one other thing that I set as something of a litmus test. If it went well I was going to polish and publish. If it went poorly, I was going to accept that I wasn’t there yet, and go back to the drawing board with a willingness to make fundamental changes to plot and character.

I work at Klaviyo. Our academy group—the department responsible for, among other things, writing all of our documentation—has a book club. They offered to read my draft book and let me be a fly on the wall for the discussion.

I was nervous in the days leading up to the book club discussion. Not just because I had exposed my draft story to colleagues, but because these colleagues were all writers! Only three people joined the zoom discussion. I don’t know if that’s because others didn’t read, or they read, didn’t enjoy, and didn’t want to confront me. But the three people who came had all gotten deep into my book. They knew my characters, had opinions about them, and were discussing them and their motivations as if they were real. It was incredible. All three were encouraging and eager to tell friends about my novel. I took their reactions as very positive and considered the litmus test passed.

(BTW...going back to my point above about people engaging with your creation...listening to my colleagues was at least as scary and satisfying as watching people use software I’ve developed. Probably more so. With software you can hide behind “we” even if it’s just “you” because users think of software as a team effort; not so for novels.)

So, after the book club discussion, which was on March 31, I started the final push. I set a goal of getting my draft to a proofreader by the end of April, which I achieved. By the end of May, sixteen rounds later, including some spirited multi-round arguments about if a word should be italicized or not or if it was okay to use sentence fragments (I thought yes and sounded better to my ears, proofreader said it would annoy readers, not sure who was right), I had my final text.

Then formatting, audiobook production (the long pole), and signing up with lots of services (Amazon KDP for Kindle eBook and paperback, IngramSpark for hardcover, Draft2Digital for “wide” distribution of eBook on non-Amazon stores, Klaviyo—of course—for my email list, Bowker for ISBNs, and Author’s Republic for audiobook distribution). [Knowing what I know now a few months later I would not have chosen all of those.]

I published on August 5. That was a month ago. It’s been an exciting month. The highs have been the emails and reviews from readers. I’m finishing this post on Labor Day and here’s a review that showed up on Amazon this morning. Wow!

This is a spectacular book which combines a great story well told with so much to think about. I guess there will be some significant literature created during the pandemic and The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev will be among the most important of these books.

And who doesn't like getting an email like this:

I LOVED IT, and I say that without reservation. It was brilliant. Great characters, amazing (and all too plausible) story, beautiful written and incredibly compelling.

The lows have been how few of the people I’ve reached out to—people I know from various walks of life—have gotten back to me. I’m not sure what to make of that. I do like it when people let me know with honesty that they’re not readers, or not fiction readers, or even that my novel doesn’t sound like their thing...of course all legit reasons not to read. Example of nice honest response: “That’s some really cool news on the book. Candidly I haven’t read a book since college and I think I skimmed it.”

At any rate, I’m learning a ton about book marketing, and with a bit more hindsight I should be able to turn what I'm learning into a new blog post. be continued...

If you’ve stuck with me this far, please consider reading my novel. The Insecure Mind of Sergei Kraev is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Google Play, Kobo and other book and audiobook retailers.